NEWARK, N.J. -- Anze Kopitar’s first memory of the Stanley Cup was June 11, 1996 when, as an 8-year old boy in Slovenia, he woke up to a delightful gift -- Game 4 of the Stanley Cup Final was still going on in South Florida more than 5,000 miles away.
"I don’t think my parents would have let me stay up. It is a six-hour difference, or a nine-hour difference from L.A., so having school the next day was definitely no chance for me," Kopitar said. "The one game that was I able to watch was the Florida-Colorado series when it went to a third or fourth overtime and I woke up early enough to see that. That’s pretty much the only one I remember from when I was really young."
His story is unique, having moved from Slovenia to Sweden as a teen to help his hockey career. He became a first-round pick and the first native Slovenian to play in the NHL.
Now Kopitar is a star for the Los Angeles Kings, and they are in the 2012 Stanley Cup Final against the New Jersey Devils. He has at least 25 goals and 66 points in the past five seasons since his rookie year. He’s also become a standout at both ends of the ice, and a true No. 1 center in this League.
Ask any of his teammates and they’ll say Kopitar deserves the recognition other superstars in the sport receive. After a strong performance to help Los Angeles to this point, Kopitar has a chance to become even more than what he’s been in the six years since he moved to Southern California.
"To be honest, I didn’t know a whole lot [about him] before I came here, but I’d put him up at the top around the elites in this League," center Mike Richards said. "Having to play against Sid [Crosby] a lot when I was in Philly and [Alex Ovechkin], he is up there with those guys just in how strong he is on the puck and how skilled he is and how hard he plays. He’s definitely up in that elite category."
Added 35-year-old defenseman Willie Mitchell: "I feel like he is there. It might be a product of so many different sports teams in L.A. He is somewhat on the back burner, and hockey hasn’t been in the limelight there. That’s a product of well, not having enough success. When you have success as a group, individuals start to get noticed more. He’s definitely a guy who should. He’s a great player."
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Kopitar had a monster season in 2009-10 with 34 goals and 81 points as the Kings made the playoffs for the first time since 2002. He’s been just off those numbers the past two regular seasons, but he’s been dominant in this postseason.
Like his team, Kopitar has found a new level of success after a somewhat disappointing regular season. He is second on the team with six goals and 15 points in 14 games, behind only linemate Dustin Brown.
He’s been a force at both ends of the ice, and his line with Brown and Justin Williams has been consistently superb for the Kings. Kopitar, Brown and goaltender Jonathan Quick are the top contenders on the L.A. roster for the Conn Smythe Trophy as playoff MVP.
"He flies under the radar for sure," TSN analyst Ray Ferraro said. "I was doing the St. Louis series. They won Game 1 in St. Louis, but Game 2 was a game that if L.A. doesn’t win, there would have been a lot of questions about, 'Well, why hasn’t Kopitar been bringing his 'A' game and leading the team?' Well, he scored two goals and then he went on a six-game point streak.
"To me, he’s already gotten there. He’s already stepped over the threshold and it was that Game 2 for me, where I went, 'You know what? He’s ready for the next step, for the heat that comes with it.' He’s a fabulous player. He really is."
At 6-foot-3 and 225 pounds, he is built like superstars Evgeni Malkin and Alex Ovechkin. Earlier in this postseason, Darryl Sutter had said Kopitar was still working on consistency issues when the new coach arrived in December.
Few players on the Kings can say they’ve been more consistent during the closing stretch of the season and during the playoffs. When he, Brown and Williams got rolling, none of the top three seeds in the Western Conference had answers.
"He’s got that type of talent, but I think another he has that other guys sometimes don’t is just his size," defenseman Rob Scuderi said. "You think of a No. 1 center and you think of a perimeter guy with a lot of skill, but he’s a big body and he uses it to his advantage. I always think of the great players I have played against and with, and if they decide you’re not going to get the puck, you’re probably not going to get it. At that point, you’re just trying to minimize the damage. There’s not a lot of guys like that in the game, but certainly when a guy like that puts his mind to it, minimizing the damage is all you can do. That’s what teams are trying to do against [Kopitar] right now."
Added Mitchell: "To give him the ultimate compliment, I’d compare him to Pavel Datsyuk. He’s so good defensively and so good offensively for our team. He makes players around him better. Those are the guys you want on your team. It is good to see that he’s starting to get that recognition. I’m really surprised after playing with him for two years that he’s been a guy who hasn’t been up for the Selke [Trophy]. I played with [Ryan] Kesler in Vancouver who is a great two-way player and I think [Kopitar] is a heck of a player that way."
This spring has been huge for hockey in Southern California. The Kings rose to popularity in Los Angeles with Wayne Gretzky in the early 1990s, but there hasn’t been a team with this type of young talent that has produced results for the organization in almost two decades.
Kings fans have also spent the past five years listening to the same chant from their neighbors to the Southeast. Those who adorn Anaheim sweaters love to ask their rivals, "Where’s Your Cup?" after the Ducks won the title in 2007. Now they have a chance to make that go away.
Kopitar, who signed a seven-year, $47.6 million contract in 2008 to be a centerpiece of the rebuilding project in Los Angeles, has become the star player his franchise needed. The next two weeks could offer him the opportunity to become more than that. A starring role in the Stanley Cup Final, combined with the strength of his hockey-playing resume to this point and an endearing personality could mean a chance to do more away from the ice.
"To give him the ultimate compliment, I’d compare him to Pavel Datsyuk. He’s so good defensively and so good offensively for our team. He makes players around him better. Those are the guys you want on your team. It is good to see that he’s starting to get that recognition."
-- Kings defenseman Willie Mitchell on Anze Kopitar
"Locally, we’ve been able to do some low-key things, but it is not like Canada or the East Coast," Pat Brisson, Kopitar’s agent, told NHL.com. "But I can tell based on how hockey is taking off here during these playoffs and the way people are talking about the game, the awareness level has come to a different level. He’s definitely going to capitalize on it -- no doubt in my mind.
"He’s well-spoken. He’s got a big presence. You combine that with the success, and it can be very big for him."
Kopitar was part of a national television ad for Verizon with a few of his Kings’ teammates, but he just might have the talent and charisma to do more commercials or endorse products both inside and outside the hockey world.
Los Angeles is a big city with big sports personalities. Gretzky, and to a certain extent Luc Robitaille, are the only Kings who have squeezed their way into the stratosphere where the stars of the Lakers and Dodgers typically reside.
For the next couple weeks, L.A. is going to be a hockey town, and the hockey world is going to get a closer look at the burgeoning superstar from Slovenia.
"The recognition of Anze Kopitar has climbed since his second or third year progressively. This is what, his sixth year in the NHL, and now he’s on center stage," Brisson said. "He’s been consistent. He took his leadership to another level. He’s improved his game, both offensively and defensively. He’s in control. Anytime a wins the Stanley Cup, they have one or two or three leaders and [Kopitar] has put himself in that position."
Added Mitchell: "He’s really one of the nicest guys I’ve played with in hockey. Just a sincere guy, a genuine guy that loves hockey, loves life. He’s happy all the time, an even-keeled guy. You never see him edgy, but a competitor that wants to be one of the best and wants the puck at all times.
"We’ll see what happens. I think he has a long, great future ahead of him."